Was Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) the first to dismiss
conceptual fiction as a gimmick?  The great critic, poet and
lexicographer offered up this pithy assessment of Jonathan
Swift's
Gulliver’s Travels (1726).  “When once you have
thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the
rest.”  Since Johnson's time, similarly curt brush-offs have
been given to countless works of fantasy and science fiction,
these books' grand imaginative leaps offered as the very
reason why we can safely ignore them.

I’ve learned a lot from Samuel Johnson—in fact, he may have
influenced my writing about
art and culture more than
anyone—but he was dead
wrong in this instance.
Perhaps Mr. Johnson never
finished the novel, because
the most incisive and thought-
provoking moments  in
Gulliver's Travels arrive not
in the early sections on the
"little men" (the Lilliputians)
and the “big men” (the Brob-
dingnagians), but in the closing
chapters, where Swift's social
satire and political commentary take over a work that started
out as a slightly modernized fairy tale.  

(By the way, has anyone else noticed how often books get
remembered for some incident in the opening pages?  
Don
Quixote
lasts a thousand pages, but the titling at windmills
scene, almost at the start, gets all the attention. Proust takes
readers on a two-thousand-page literary journey, but that early
scene with the madeleine has become emblematic of the
whole work.  The same is true with Gulliver and his Lilliputian
adversaries. A cynical critic could make a case that literary
history and theory is driven by the first 5% of our classic
works.)

The opening pages of
Gulliver's Travels are especially
misleading, presenting a
quasi-Dr. Seussian scenario that
has inspired many later commentators to classify this work as
a story for youngsters.  And a psychoanalytical interpretation
might well back up this reading, decoding Gulliver's entrap-
ment by the tiny Lilliputians as a kind of wish fulfillment for the
tiniest of readers.  Yet the teachings of Dr. Freud notwith-
standing, Dr. Swift (PhD in Divinity, 1702) did not write
a book for adolescents and early teens.  Yes, he deserves
ample praise—as I make clear below—for his important
contributions to three different schools of genre fiction: fantasy,
sci-fi and the adventure story. But Swift is also much more
than a spinner of engaging yarns. The non-realistic elements
of his novel are never inserted merely to dazzle or charm
the reader. At every stage of
Gulliver's Travels, the fantastic
elements are subservient to Swift’s satire and critical
thinking.

Swift is hardly an exception in this regard. Almost from the
birth of storytelling, works of imaginative fiction have served
as powerful platforms for social commentary.  This was true
of Ovid and Homer,
Apuleius and Rabelais, H.G. Wells and
Olaf Stapledon,
Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, Margaret
Atwood and Robert Heinlein, all the way to the present day,
when science fiction and fantasy themes have taken over a
host of mainstream highbrow literary works, from
Infinite Jest
to The Road.  Are you surprised? You shouldn't be. Readers
should expect brave new ideas to spring from the same
writers who are the boldest at re-imagining the fabric and
conventions of the mundane world.

Yet Swift stands out, even among this elite company, as the
boldest satirist of them all.  In
Gulliver’'s Travels, he found a
simple and delightful vehicle for his most pointed barbs—
namely Lemuel Gulliver's attempts to explain his own flawed
civilization to the many new people he meets.  Those who
classify
Gulliver's Travels as a story for youngsters—one
of most misguided rebranding efforts in literary history (and
not just for the many crude and scatological passages)—or
a bit of escapism or idle entertainment, thus miss the main
point. The freshest and most courageous passages in this
book have nothing to do with Lilliputians or Brobdingnagians,
but with a much different race, known as the British.

Here are some choice passages that are hardly kid’s stuff.

First, Gulliver needs to convey the distinctive characteristics
of the noble class, which his interlocutor assumes must
encompass the must virtuous and praiseworthy individuals
in the realm.  Not so, Gulliver explains:

Nobility, among us, was altogether a different thing from the
idea he had of it; that our young  noblemen are bred from
their childhood in idleness and luxury;  that, as soon as
years will permit, they consume their vigour, and contract
odious diseases among lewd females; and when their  
fortunes are almost ruined, they marry some woman of
mean birth,  disagreeable person, and unsound constitution
(merely for the  sake of money), whom they hate and despise.  
That the productions  of such marriages are generally
scrofulous, rickety, or deformed  children; by which means
the family seldom continues above three  generations,
unless the wife takes care to provide a healthy  father,
among her neighbours or domestics, in order to improve
and continue the breed….

Next, Gulliver struggles to explain the conflicts of nations to
his host:

He asked me, ‘what were the usual causes or motives that
made one country go to war with another?’ I answered ‘they
were innumerable; but I should only mention a few of the
chief. Sometimes the ambition of princes, who never think
they have land or people enough to govern; sometimes the
corruption of ministers, who engage their master in a war, in
order to stifle or divert the clamour of the subjects against
their evil administration. Difference in opinions has cost
many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread,
or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be
blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue; whether
it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire; what is the
best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red, or gray; and
whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or
clean; with many more. Neither are any wars so furious and
bloody, or of so long a continuance, as those occasioned by
difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.’

Finally Gulliver takes on the most difficult task of all—namely,
describing the workings of a court of law:

I said there was a society of men among us, bred up from
their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the
purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according
as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people
are slaves. For example, if my neighbour hath a mind to
my cow, he hires a lawyer to prove that he ought to have
my cow from me. I must then hire another to defend my right,
it being against the rules of law that any man should be
allowed to speak for himself. Now in this case, I who am the
true owner lie under two great disadvantages. First; my
lawyer, being practised almost from his cradle in defending
falsehood, is quite out of his element when he would be an
advocate for justice, which as an office unnatural, he always
attempts with great awkwardness, if not with ill-will. The
second disadvantage is, that my lawyer must proceed with
great caution, or else he will be reprimanded by the Judges,
and abhorred by his brethren, as one who would lessen the
practice of the law. And therefore I have but two methods to
preserve my cow. The first is to gain over my adversary's
lawyer with a double fee, who will then betray his client by
insinuating that he hath justice on his side. The second way
is for my lawyer to make my cause appear as unjust as he
can, by allowing the cow to belong to my adversary; and this
if it be skilfully done will certainly bespeak the favour of the
Bench.

Each of these passages comes from the final section of
Gulliver's Travels, which describes that narrator's visit to
the
Houyhnhnms—a race of rational horses who live along-
side brutish human beings known as
Yahoos (note Swift's
contribution both to our vocabulary and the Internet age).  A
modern-day filmmaker would find little sustenance in this part
of Swift's story; the scenes are little more than springboards
for dialogue and discourse, without the striking opportunity
for 'special effects' provided by the 'little people' and 'big
people' in the earlier chapters.  But those who are familiar
with the cantankerous spirit of Jonathan Swift know full well
that he was capable of his own kind of 'special effects'—with
no advanced software or stop-motion animation required.  

Yet for all the satire, Swift also set the stage for the later
blossoming of genre literature.
Gulliver’s Travels is very
much a forerunner of the later adventure stories of H. Rider
Haggard and Rudyard Kipling—and reminds us that travel
literature set the blueprint for many pulp fiction formulas. The
fantasy genre is also very much an extension of such works—
how many of them even come with a map as frontispiece?
Certainly
Gulliver's Travels is an important part of that lineage
as well.  Still another genre is anticipated in these pages: in
the section on Gulliver’s visit to the flying island of Laputa,
Swift moves clearly on to the terrain of science fiction.  His
explanations of the magnetic principles that allow the flying
island to elevate and move may not be scientifically sound,
but the very fact that our author felt compelled to provide
technological descriptions is revealing.  The storytellers who
gave us the Arabian Nights or Grimm’s Fairy Tales never felt
the need to bring science to the aid of their fantastic stories,
and Swift’s gesture here, ever so fleeting, points the way
towards the later mindset of a
Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.  

So we are not wrong to draw a connection all the way from
Gulliver's Travels to modern day fabulists, from J. R. R.
Tolkien to J.K. Rowling.  But the fanciful elements in Gulliver's
Travels
should never blind us to the acerbic satire that made
this work a masterpiece.  Swift’s greatest achievement—and
one can we can still learn from—is to have written a book of
far-flung travels that always hits home the hardest. Indeed,
even Samuel Johnson should have figured out that Swift's
genius came from putting down to size all those 'little people'
who have never been anywhere near Lilliput.

Published: November 5, 2012

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular culture.
His newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the
Repertoire.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
Gulliver's Travels and the
Birth of Genre Fiction
by Ted Gioia
Click on image to purchase
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by
Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
by
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzle of Robert Sheckley


Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
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